Tai Chi: The Supreme Ultimate

Tai Chi: The Supreme Ultimate

by Lawrence Galante

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A comprehensive text that includes a study of the origins and history of Tai Chi, a detailed analysis of its philosophy and relationship to Western philosophy, the I Ching and the Tao te Ching, and to Yoga and Zen. Includes information about breathing, health and Chinese medicine, as well as several hundred detailed photographs showing application of the positions.  See more details below


A comprehensive text that includes a study of the origins and history of Tai Chi, a detailed analysis of its philosophy and relationship to Western philosophy, the I Ching and the Tao te Ching, and to Yoga and Zen. Includes information about breathing, health and Chinese medicine, as well as several hundred detailed photographs showing application of the positions.

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By Lawrence Galante, Betsy Selman

Red Wheel/Weiser, LLC

Copyright © 1981 Lawrence Galante
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-60925-710-1


Tai Chi: The Supreme Ultimate

Tai Chi is the popular abbreviation for T'ai Chi Chuan—pronounced tie chee chuwan (ti che choowon). It is translated as "The Supreme Ultimate Boxing System." It is an ancient Chinese exercise consisting of slow, relaxed movements for total self-development: for the body it is an exercise; for the mind it is a study in concentration, will power and visualization; and for the soul, it is a system of spiritual meditation. Tai Chi is also a preventative and curative branch of Chinese medicine, and, the "Supreme Ultimate" system of martial art.

The name T'ai Chi Chuan is taken from Taoism. The T'ai Chi-"The Supreme Ultimate" or "The Grand Terminus," is a symbol of the eternal Tao. It is composed of a circle containing one yin and one yang harmoniously interconnected. It signifies everything in creation which is manifested and the duality that is contained in all. The word Chuan means "fist" or "fighting system." Thus T'ai Chi Chuan can simply be defined as the supreme ultimate system of boxing or martial art. Chuan also means control. This control implies both self-control and control over a given situation. T'ai Chi Chuan therefore, may be given yet another definition: the supreme ultimate system of self-control in any situation.

Origin and History

The Emergence of Shao-lin Temple Boxing

Although Tai Chi Chuan is a Chinese art, its roots can be traced back to India. In 500 B.C., there lived a man in India called Guatama, who was born a prince. He relinquished kingdom, fortune and family to pursue a quest for truth and for the deeper meaning of life. After many years of self-denial, asceticism, meditation, searching and self-inquiry, he achieved what he described as "the highest level possible for one to attain while in his earthly body". From this point on, he was known as "The Buddha"—The Enlightened One. Furthermore, he made a vow that he would not be content with his achievement until he had shared his wisdom with all beings.

I, having reached the other shore, help others to cross the water; I, having attained salvation, am a savior of others; I being comforted, comfort others and lead them to the place of refuge.

The Buddha—The Compassionate One, established Buddhist orders throughout India. After his death, the teachings of Gautama, The Light of Asia, spread rapidly eastward. Buddhist Patriarchs left India to teach this doctrine of universal brotherhood, the cessation of suffering, and salvation, to other nations. One famous Patriarch called Padma-sambava crossed the Himalayan mountains, settled in Tibet and founded Tibetan Buddhism. In the sixth century (c.530) a Buddhist monk called Bodhidharma, made a similar journey across the Himalayas and traveled to China to spread Buddha's teachings. He was the son of King Sugandha and was therefore fortunate enough to have the opportunity to study martial arts in India under an old master named Prajhatara. Bodhidharma, also called Ta-mo, established himself in the Shao-lin monastery in Honan Province in northern China and began teaching Buddhist Sutras to his followers. Monks joined the order and the monastery grew. Meditation was a key part of their training and was to unlock many doors in the monks' evolution towards self-mastery. Ta-mo himself was reputed to have sat in meditation facing a wall for nine years. The monks were also instructed in agriculture, herbology and healing. With these skills they helped the sick and hungry. This work helped the monks to better fulfill their vows of saving all beings. Ta-mo discovered that the health of his disciples was deteriorating. They would fall asleep during the sutra studies and they seemed to be unprepared for the rigorous monastery lifestyle. Ta-mo taught that the body and the mind were united; therefore it seemed wrong to him that his monks, who were doing such vigorous mental striving, should be so deficient physically. At this time poor health became a serious threat to their survival because vicious hordes of nomads were sweeping through parts of China, killing and pillaging villages and monasteries. Ta-mo decided to take drastic steps to insure the survival of his Shao-lin order. The monks carried neither weapons nor shields, but Ta-mo declared that through the powers latent within the mind, one could transform the hands into knives, and the arms into shields. Thus to strengthen the body, to defend themselves, and to combat injustice, the monks began to study the way of the righteous fist. Ta-mo's new fighting discipline was a combination of:

* meditation: the knowledge that the mind is supreme over the body, and that the mind can transform men into invincible fighting machines;

* the martial arts that he had studied in India;

* the chinese boxing techniques (which at that time were scattered and disorganized);

* three sets of exercises taught by Ta-mo for improved health and meditation:

"the eighteen movements of the Ahran Hands," "Sinew Changing," and "Marrow Washing Exercises." These exercises were carried over from Indian Avedic medical practices. They emphasized rhythmic breathing and body-stretching maneuvers.

Shao-lin Temple Boxing was born out of this combination. It became a mandatory study in the temple, along with other disciplines to be mastered by the monks. When a monk attained a high level of inner mastery over all the disciplines expected of him in the monastery, including Ta-mo's Temple Boxing; he was called a Kung Fu master. Kung Fu means inner development or mastery, and can be applied to any discipline, for example, meditation; or to any skill, such as playing a musical instrument. Today the popular usage of the term Kung Fu has become virtually synonymous with the Chinese martial arts (Wushu) that the monks practiced. It also may be applied to other martial art forms; Tai Chi Chuan, Hsing-1, Karate, judo, etc.

As the centuries passed, the boxing system of Shao-lin became formalized into five distinct styles ... Crane, Snake, Leopard, Tiger and Dragon. These styles were inspired by observing the fighting maneuvers of animals and by imitating their movements. Although conflicting dates are given for this formalization of Shaolin Boxing, the latest date possible is in the 16th century, by Kwok Yuen, Pak Yook Fong, and Li. Following the creation of the five styles of Shao-lin Boxing, other important styles began to develop. From Crane came Praying Mantis style, from Tiger came Eagle style, from Tiger and Crane, Hung style was invented. Snake and Crane gave rise to Wing Chun, and the list continued to grow.

Shao-lin Temple Boxing became famous as the finest system of martial art and was revered all over China. So great was its reputation that martial artists from other countries also wanted to study this system. Shao-lin monks realized that there was great power inherent in these teachings and they were very reluctant to permit the teaching outside of the temple walls.

With the fall of the Ming dynasty (c. 1644 A.D.), outsiders were permitted to enter the temple and learn the boxing art in order to drive out the invading Manchurians.

Thus Shao-lin boxing left the temple and started to spread throughout China. Later in history, portions of this highly evolved art spread to Okinawa where it was called Shao-lin Ryu, meaning Shao-lin fighting style. When it reached Korea it was called Tai Kuan Do. In japan it was called Karate, meaning Chinese empty-hand fighting. Even jujitzu was based upon a style of Chinese boxing called Chin Na which emphasized locks and flips. Chinese Temple Boxing was the mother system which gave birth to the other martial arts in Asia.

(Terracotta, h. 5 feet, 10 inches. Qin dynasty, 221-210 B.C. from: The Great Bronze Age of China: An exhibition from The People's Republic of China. This photograph reprinted with permission from The People's Republic of China and the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York. Photograph by Seth joel.)

This statue is historically valuable because it clearly shows that the roots of Chinese Kung Fu Wu Shu go much further back in time than the formalized dates usually attribued to Ta Mo's system of Shao-lin (6th century) or Chang Sanfeng's system of Tai Chi Chuan (about 1300 A.D.). Note that the statue does not presume to show traditional Kung Fu Wu Shu per se, but only its ancient root heritage with more ancient Chinese Boxing systems. Also note the similarity to the "Shoulder Press" (Form photograph #30) found in the present day Yang style Tai Chi Chuan form.

The Soft School: Tai Chi Chuan

Chang San-feng, a Taoist priest (1279-1368), is generally regarded as the founder of the soft school of boxing. He was supposed to have been a great master of Shao-lin Chuan. It is said that one evening he had a dream in which God taught him how to fight. This dream synchronized with a scene that he witnessed shortly thereafter. A crane and a snake were engaged in mortal combat. He noticed how the snake would recoil to escape the crane's attack and use that same recoil to launch into its own attack. The crane would use its wings to softly cover the snake. He was inspired. He realized the practicality of yielding, pliability and softness. He had felt for a long time that the expenditure of great muscular strength was not in harmony with nature and the theories of meditation. Therefore, he invented his Wu Tang school of meditation and soft martial art. It was named after the Wu Tang mountain range where he taught.

After Chang San-feng, the history of Tai Chi Chuan becomes very vague. It is believed that Chang taught his system to Wang Tsung, who taught Chen Chow Tung, later Chang Sung Chi learned it. But there seems to be many conflicting accounts and dates given by different sources. We can begin to trace the soft school and Tai Chi Chuan much more concretely in the 1600's after Ch'en Wang Ting. The following chart brings the history of Tai Chi Chuan up to date in the U.S.A.

The three main schools of Tai Chi today are Chen, Yang and Wu respectively, started by Chen Wang Ting (1597-1664), Yang Lu Chuan (1799-1872), and Wu Yu Hsing (1812-1880). More recently the Sun style has been gaining popularity; it is named after its founder Sun Luck Tang (1881-1932).

The most popular style of Tai Chi Chuan is the Yang style. My own teacher Cheng Man-ch'ing (1900-1975) learned it from Yang Ch'eng Fu, the grandson of Yang Lu Chuan. Cheng was considered by most to be the greatest exponent of the Yang style in the later half of the 1900's. Cheng was known as the master of the five excellences. He was a master of Chinese medicine and founded the first college of Chinese medicine in Taiwan. He was also a master of calligraphy, poetry and painting. Professor Cheng had tuberculosis as a teenager and was told he would die at an early age. As a desperate measure at age 25, he started to study Tai Chi Chuan. He told us that in six months he stopped spitting blood and in one year his coughing ceased. He continued to practice Tai Chi until his death. It was the beneficial health aspect of Tai Chi that the Professor most wanted to communicate to his followers.

Cheng developed the short Yang form which is much more concise and very popular today. This shortened Yang form is a careful distillation of those moves which contain the most basic principles and which are the most beneficial to one's health. He removed most of the repetitions and some of the more exotic looking fighting movements. The result was a form which took only ten minutes to do instead of the original thirty.

Naturally, these alterations caused the more pedantic practitioners of the Yang style to strongly disapprove. Cheng told his students that his senior brothers, however, approved of his alterations. Cheng's short form opened the door to Tai Chi Chuan to greater masses of people who would not devote the time to learn and to practice such a long series of movements. He trained thousands of people in this short form in both China and the U.S.A. He and his students are most responsible for spreading Tai Chi to the West, and to the United States.

Tai Chi was hardly known outside of China until about fifteen years ago, and then only to connoisseurs of the martial arts. The handful of non-Chinese that had heard of Tai Chi were very vague about the concept of Chi, had no idea of how it could be utilized for self-defense, and had little or no access to qualified instructors. Even in China, martial arts were always veiled in mystery because they were restricted to esoteric circles. Novices were usually accepted from within the family or occasionally from the truly die-hard seekers clammering for initiation and willing to undergo all manner of sacrifice and austerity in order to be admitted into the "inner circle". The Chen family, and later the Yang family practiced Tai Chi Chuan. For many centuries it remained a closed system unavailable to outsiders. The awesome display of martial prowess displayed by Tai Chi Chuan masters during combat or tournaments and the legendary tales of extraordinary abilities, good health and longevity combined to form a kind of magical aura and skill that few could achieve and almost none could understand.

With the Communist revolution in China, came Communist ideals of equality for all. In the eyes of the new government all "elitist practices" had to be discontinued. The esoteric circles of martial art schools were viewed as elitest. The new regime did not have any place for people who would spend the days in full-time practice of martial arts, nor any other arts for that matter, as had been the custom in the old days of China. All people were now required to work in the fields, in the factories and in other communal ventures for the common good of the country. The families with money and property were required to hand over their private possessions to the government for redistribution to the people. The alternative was imprisonment or death. Martial art families adjusted as best they could. Some continued to practice their traditional martial skills in the spare moments available, but since there simply was not the time to teach and train correctly, many of mainland China's most exotic and complex martial skills deteriorated drastically or were lost completely. Others decided to escape from the Communists and flee to Taiwan or Hong Kong, rather than to become proletarians for a regime void of individual artistic expression and talent.

As a result of the emigration from mainland China by Kung Fu masters, such as Cheng Man-ch'ing and others, Chinese martial arts began spreading to other countries in Europe, Asia, and America. Master Cheng particularly wished to teach Tai Chi to non Chinese students, because he felt that it was an art that should benefit the health of the whole world. He often told his advanced students that he felt that the future of Tai Chi Chuan was in the U.S.A. Although Master Cheng and others did consent to teach their arts outside of China, these arts were not received with overwhelming enthusiasm in their new homelands. People would look upon them with curiosity, fascination and polite interest but only a small handful would actually take the time to study and learn these skills. Was it a martial art or a fancy dance? Was it practical for self-defense? Was it as effective as Karate or Jujitzu? Usually those that did take up the study dropped out before acquiring any real adeptness. Even today, the drop-out rate of martial arts students is about 80% within the first three months. People want to learn but are not willing to devote the time and work necessary for practice and improvement in the art.

Ironically, the new Chinese government was destined to reverse its position regarding Kung Fu. It had initially opposed the "old ways" of China, but it did not succeed in changing the people's attitudes about Kung Fu. As the I Ching states:

The town may be changed, But the well cannot be changed.

Kung Fu had become like a well with archetypal springs feeding it from deep within the unconscious mind of the Chinese people. They had given birth to Kung Fu over a thousand years earlier and generation after generation had grown to love this unique Chinese boxing exercise. The people just could not say "no more" and turn their backs on Kung Fu overnight. They loved it and still wanted it. The government finally decided to do some research on Kung Fu, to see if there would be any scientific justification for permitting its re-entry into the new Chinese system.

This research so convinced the government of Tai Chi's preventative and curative value that it has been reinstated as a mandatory subject of' study for everyone in the public scho61s. Even workers in factories and on farms take daily exercise breaks to practice Tai Chi Chuan. It was also decided to make Kung Fu Wushu a national sport in the communistic spirit of co-operation. Fighting tournaments were banned but form competitions took their place. A random sample of some of the finest Kung Fu forms from the various styles were collected and standardized and the new sport of Wushu was made official. Working people from all over China are now encouraged to study any of these standard forms. We in the U.S.A. were treated to a demonstration of some of these forms when the Wushu delegation from China visited in 1974. Tai Chi Chuan is one of the styles that was standardized and included in their Kung Fu training. Tai Chi Chuan, however, is still regarded as unique among the Kung Fu styles because the form is suitable for young and old and particularly beneficial to health.

Excerpted from TAI CHI by Lawrence Galante, Betsy Selman. Copyright © 1981 Lawrence Galante. Excerpted by permission of Red Wheel/Weiser, LLC.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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